Next Thursday, the 10th October, a new 8-week series exploring Ulster Protestant identity kicks off at the Glens Centre in Manorhamilton, funded by IFI as part of the Across the Lines programme at The Glens Centre. The Actor and director Adrian Dunbar, no stranger to the region comments:
This looks like a thoughtful and indeed timely intervention. The Ulster Protestant imagination continues to struggle free from orthodoxies unique in these islands. Its lore and commitment to our national imagination is unparalleled.
The Ulster Protestant is currently a group very much under the microscope, with the largest party of Ulster Unionism a key player (for the time being) in the Brexit negotiations. This divisive association is in itself one of the first things people reach for when they are asked, or think, about Ulster Protestant identity. However, this series aims to move beyond the familiar images and stereotypes often in news-reportage by looking at writers from this background who reflect its diverse, dissenting and on occasion progressive character. The seminar series will provoke discussion and healthy debate, challenge stereotypes and engage wide ranging narratives.
One early writer considered is Thomas Carnduff, a poet, playwright, shipyard worker and Orangeman who went up on stage to rapturous applause at the Abbey Theatre following the first performance of his seminal play Workers in October 1932. The play expressed Belfast working-class life and dialect for a Dublin audience and won Carnduff praise as an ‘O’Casey of the north’, even if he was obliged to stand for the Irish anthem when he got up on stage to receive his accolade. It was John Hewitt who described himself as an Ulsterman, Irish, British, and European which remains a useful identity framework for many Protestants, although it misses his associations with more left wing politics.
More recent writers including Gary Mitchell deal with the ravages of paramilitarism, Dave Duggan and Jonathan Burgess – who are coming into a session to discuss their work – and who have associations with Derry/Londonderry, write drama that explores attitudes to the peace process, and band culture and population movements of the Protestant community from the west bank of the city.
The programme takes in the powerful border-view of Eugene McCabe, the poetic sensibility of Frank McGuinness and the earthy Leitrim recollections of John McGahern before taking an in-depth look at the voice of women writers, such as, Marie Jones and Christina Reid’s whose plays portray women negotiating the Troubles. Rosemary Jenkinson, another guest speaker on the programme notes that many northern Protestants envy the positive images involved by Irish Catholics globally. She is proud of all her identities as a Protestant, Irish, and British woman, even if:
…the new uncertainty of Brexit makes us feel as precarious as an infant in care. We’re like the problem child of Europe, feeling disowned and unloved by England and Ireland, yet at the same time we’re incredibly proud to have survived.
Staying with the dominant theme of our times, we note how in the film written by Stacey Gregg, the inter-generational ‘advice’ of a mother walking her young daughter to school along a famous Belfast interface is:
At the end of the day, if you’ve your head screwed on, get your Irish passport: you’re European and your British. Go after the work. And sure, that’s the best the young ones can hope for, isn’t it?
Despite the uncertainty referenced by Jenkinson, the Ulster Protestant imagination and identity will continue to negotiate its way long after the present storms and in so doing weave an important rich cultural legacy.
(By Connal Parr. Edited R Moore)